When looking both ways isn’t enough: why El Camino Real needs to be safer for pedestrians

Crossing the street shouldn’t feel like you’re playing a real-life game of Frogger. As it exists today, El Camino Real through Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, and Santa Clara is not a friendly street. For people who walk or bike, it can be downright dangerous.

El Camino Real is wide and auto-centric (planned around cars), with long blocks, few crosswalks, fast car traffic, minimal pedestrian amenities, and little to no protection for cyclists. It is an uninviting, unpleasant, and unsafe place for people on foot and bicycle. In a recent forum organized by TransForm, California Walks, and other co-sponsors on the future of El Camino Real, many community members raised concerns about the lack of safety, vibrancy, and comfort for pedestrians and cyclists along the corridor.

Thankfully, with the El Camino Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project we have an opportunity to make El Camino a safer place for all the people who use it. The numbers prove without a doubt why we need this to happen—and as soon as possible.

The numbers tell a scary story—El Camino Real is a dangerous place for people on foot and bicycle. 

Data from California Highway Patrol’s (CHP) Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS) between January 2008 and December 2012 confirms that 15% of all pedestrian and bicycle collisions within the cities of Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, and Mountain View are located along El Camino Real (see maps of where these pedestrian and bicycle collisions happen in Santa Clara County.) 

Furthermore, three-quarters of all fatal and severe traffic collisions along El Camino Real involve people walking and biking. That’s not a typo, it’s a fact. Across the El Camino Real BRT Corridor—from Santa Clara University to the San Mateo County Line—the overwhelming majority of all traffic-related fatal and severe collisions involve pedestrians (58.3%) and bicyclists (16.7%). In the city of Mountain View, a bicyclist is injured every nine days.

But SWITRS data doesn’t include minor collisions where the police are not called, collisions on private property (including parking lots), or “near misses.” Research shows that less-severe collisions are underreported in comparison to severe collisions, so the actual number of pedestrian and bicycle related collisions along the corridor may be even higher in reality.

Not surprisingly, the top three primary collision factors are all symptoms of a corridor designed primarily for speeding cars, not for people, including: dangerous and infrequent crossing opportunities for pedestrians, unsafe car speeds, and drivers violating pedestrian right-of-ways.

We need to create a more pedestrian and bicycle friendly corridor as local plans seek to encourage more public transportation use and less reliance on the automobile along El Camino Real. Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)’s Pedestrian Access to Transit Plan: Existing Conditions Report found that 71% of VTA’s riders get to bus stops and rail stations on foot. As Mountain View resident Janet Lafleur recently reflected, 

“The current vehicle-oriented design along El Camino Real is so unpleasant and unsafe for people walking and biking that it encourages people to drive for short trips, sometimes just to cross the road. I see such potential for El Camino as a more vibrant destination. More people on transit, on foot and on bikes mean more shoppers with less parking required and fewer vehicles on the road."

One way to address the public safety issue on El Camino Real and encourage more walking, biking, and transit use is to create a “Complete Street” with high quality public transportation.

According to Smart Growth America, “Complete Streets are streets for everyone. They are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.” A Complete Street approach is in line with the guiding principles of the Grand Boulevard Initiative (GBI), which aims to create a corridor that “will achieve its full potential for residents to work, live, shop, and play, creating links between communities that promote walking and transit and an improved and meaningful quality of life."

And evidence from across the nation shows that if you build it, they will come. In Pasadena, pedestrian and bicycle traffic along Orange Grove Boulevard rose by 9% and 20% respectively after a complete road transformation that included adding bike lanes.

VTA’s Bus Rapid Transit offers an exciting opportunity to make El Camino Real a safer, more complete street for all the people who use it.

Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) recently released the Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Assessment (DEIR) for the El Camino Real Bus Rapid Transit Project (BRT). The DEIR aims to identify the environmental impacts of the El Camino BRT project with a focus on level of service (LOS), or how quickly cars can travel. But putting the emphasis on moving cars quickly prevents investment in other transportation options, even if they would create less pollution overall—and it leads to building auto-centric environments like El Camino Real.

Thanks to new state guidelines focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in an effort to combat climate change, in 2016 the emphasis for EIRs will shift from LOS to vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reduction. This means that instead of measuring a project’s impact based on how it could slow down cars, the environmental analysis will be focused on how it can reduce driving and increase other modes of transportation that are healthier for us.

El Camino Real’s DEIR was written under the old regulations, and thus relies on the outdated LOS metric. However, it does include some discussion of how the project could benefit pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-motorized road users. Some of the specifics include:

  • Stations with pedestrian amenities like real-time passenger information displays and larger waiting and seating areas.
  • Increased space for bicycles on-board buses. 
  • Improved “bulb-out” stations that provide more sidewalk space for pedestrians near intersections.  
  • Pedestrian refuges and shorter or additional pedestrian crossings in bus-only lane segments.
  • Marked bike lanes in each direction on bus-only lanes.  

These proposed improvements are a step in the right direction, and they show how making the corridor more complete and safe for all road users can be implemented successfully. Given the statistics on how dangerous El Camino Real is for people who walk or bike, it is imperative that these changes happen—fast.

You can help make El Camino Real a safer place for everyone.

With your help, the future of El Camino Real can be brighter and better for everyone, whether we walk, bike, take transit, or drive.  VTA is seeking input on the El Camino Real Bus Rapid Transit Project Draft EIR/EA and there are several ways you can call for Complete Streets implementation alongside the BRT:

  • Send your comments to VTA.  VTA needs to hear from all of us who want to see a safer, more vibrant El Camino Real.  Tell them how the El Camino Real BRT project can save lives by making it safer for people to travel along El Camino Real. The deadline has been extended to January 14, 2015 to ensure there’s enough time for comments—but why wait?  Weigh in today.
  • Come to one of the final public meetings in Santa Clara on December 3.  The first meeting is at 8:30 a.m., followed by the second meeting at 5:30 p.m.

Don’t miss this important opportunity to keep our streets and communities safe, vibrant, and connected.  If we all speak up for Complete Streets and BRT on El Camino Real, we can win better bus service and take an important step toward the day when everyone who crosses the street can safely get to the other side.

 

Jaime Fearer is the Planning & Policy Manager at California Walks. She works to positively influence policy and land use changes that will improve pedestrian safety and walkability across the city of San Jose. 

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TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.